We're not using our phones to their full potential.
That we learned earlier this month at Converge, the Journal's Asian tech conference, where we met Chinese entrepreneurs, colleagues and friends—and of course immediately asked to play with their smartphones.
In China, there are ways of living your life through a smartphone that left us jealous. China has even figured out a business model to legitimately stream the current season "Game of Thrones" on your phone, free.
What's China's edge? Technology is often just cheaper, allowing for more frequent phone swaps. Then there's the world's largest Internet culture—some 649 million wired people, 86% on phones—who make an incredible test base for new ideas. Many young people leapfrogged over laptops right to smartphones as their main computing device, so phones have evolved to do more.
Giant domestic rivals like Tencent and Alibaba compete for loyalty across all kinds of mobile services, including messaging, shopping, video and even food delivery.
Here are five lessons the Chinese can teach Americans about smartphones:
Messaging apps as operating systems
In China, a messaging app is much more than a way to text someone that you're running late for a meeting. It's a social network for keeping up with friends and celebrities.
But it isn't just social. It taps into your phone's GPS, microphone and camera to let you play games, check in to a flight, identify a song, book an appointment, call a cab, pay bills, you name it.
Messaging services like WeChat do so much, they're kind of like operating systems for your life, as venture-capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz's Connie Chan recently noted. WeChat hosts millions of other apps inside its platform, so you can really live your whole life inside WeChat.
Phones really are wallets
In China, the tech elite are much more likely to pay for goods and services with their phones because it's widely accepted.
Apps like WeChat allow you to pay from a mobile wallet (linked to a bank or credit card) without waving your phone over anything.
And WeChat has giant competition. Alipay has grown into a flexible replacement for cash in all kinds of settings—paying landlords, bills, friends and so forth. You can earn better interest with it than at a bank or get a loan.
A new phone without waiting
The tech savvy in greater China get a new phone nearly every year. Cheaper Android handsets from Xiaomi, Huawei and LeTV combined with contract-free mobile service enable people to always have the latest technology—better screens, processors and cameras.
Even iPhone owners, a colleague told us, sell their phones on the giant secondary market as soon as the new iPhone is announced.
Customization is also part of the upgrade culture. Xiaomi had a special on for its omnipresent Mi Note phablets where you could swap out the glass back for bamboo at no cost.
The operating system gets better, faster
You don't have to wait around for the latest software in China, either.
In the U.S., updates to Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy can come as a trickle because the phone maker has to push them first to carriers. In China, Samsung rival Xiaomi bypasses the carrier and pushes out free updates as often as once a week.
Xiaomi's system allows superfans to be more involved with generating ideas, and for improvements to come regularly. This includes features like a flashlight you can turn on from the lock screen just by holding the home button.
Could you imagine Apple crowdsourcing ways to improve the iPhone?
Phones are TVs
In China, phones aren't second-class citizens when it comes to watching shows and movies.
The best stuff is mostly available to stream online. China's historic challenges with protecting intellectual property have helped the market invent new business models for media.